Risky Business stands out in growing sea of climate reports


Receding beach on North Carolina's Outer Banks.

Tim Burkitt/FEMA

This blog post was co-authored by Jonathan Camuzeaux.

Put Republican Hank Paulson, Independent Mike Bloomberg, and Democrat Tom Steyer together, and out comes one of the more unusual – and unusually impactful – climate reports.

This year alone has seen a couple of IPCC tomes, an entry by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the most recent U.S. National Climate Assessment.

The latest, Risky Business, stands apart for a number of reasons, and it’s timely with the nation debating proposed, first-ever limits on greenhouse gas emissions from nearly 500 power plants.

Tri-partisan coalition tackles climate change

The report is significant, first, because we have a tri-partisan group spanning George W. Bush’s treasury secretary Paulson, former mayor of New York Bloomberg, and environmentalist investor Steyer – all joining forces to get a message through.

That list of names alone should make one sit up and listen.

Last time a similar coalition came together was in the dog days of 2009, when Senators Lindsay Graham, Joe Lieberman, and John Kerry were drafting the to-date last viable (and ultimately unsuccessful) Senate climate bill.

Global warming is hitting home

Next, Risky Business is important because it shows how climate change is hitting home. No real surprise there for anyone paying attention to globally rising temperatures, but the full report goes into much more granular details than most, focusing on impacts at county, state and regional levels.

Risky Business employs the latest econometric techniques to come up with numbers that should surprise even the most hardened climate hawks and wake up those still untouched by reality. Crop yield losses, for example, could go as high as 50 to 70 percent (!) in some Midwestern and Southern states, absent agricultural adaptation.

The report is also replete with references to heat strokes, sky-rocketing electricity demand for air conditioning, and major losses from damages to properties up and down our ever-receding coast lines.

Not precisely uplifting material, yet this report does a better job than most in laying it all out.

Financial markets can teach us a climate lesson

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Risky Business gets the framing exactly right: Climate change is replete with deep-seated risks and uncertainties.

In spite of all that we know about the science, there’s lots more that we don’t. And none of that means that climate change isn’t bad. As the report makes clear, what we don’t know could potentially be much worse.

Climate change, in the end, is all about risk management.

Few are better equipped to face up to that reality than the trio spearheading the effort; Paulson, Bloomberg and Steyer have made their careers (and fortunes) in the financial sector. In fact, as United States Treasury secretary between 2006 and 2009, Paulson was perhaps closest of anyone to the latest, global example of what happens when risks get ignored.

We cannot – must not – ignore risk when it comes to something as global as global warming. After all, for climate, much like for financial markets, it’s not over ‘til the fat tail zings.

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Gernot Wagner

Gernot Wagner

Focuses on the economics of clean air.

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All experts seem to agree that warming will cause sea levels to rise because of the polar ice caps and worlds glaciers melting. What I have not seen addressed is the impact of removing the weight of the ice caps water from the supporting land mass below it.

If I understand correctly, there are millions of tons of ice resting upon each of the polar caps. This weight is being countered by the weight of continents of the world against the tectonic plates around the world.

If the weight of the ice caps is redistributed over the surface of the worlds oceans, logic tells me that the polar land masses would be forced upward allowing continental drift to accelerate and tectonic plates to shift causing earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that would make rising sea levels and shifting weather patterns seem like nothing!

I would love to be wrong about this, but has anyone actually studied this?

Hi Jan, and thanks for your comment.

Sea level is rising due to thermal expansion of warmer water, melting mountain glaciers, and melting ice sheets. You are correct in that the shrinking weight of the ice caps will also have an effect on the Earth, a phenomenon that has been studied in the scientific community.

To provide some perspective, the world is actually still recovering from the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago, when huge ice sheets covered a large portion of the Northern Hemisphere. The gradual lifting of weight off of North America, Canada, and Europe, has caused the land to rise, and it is still rising.

The rise in land is actually making the sea level rise appear less than what it actually is. Studies have shown that historical rapid changes in glacial mass loading do affect fault zones, however, with a time lag of several thousand years. So the current fault behavior is linked to past climate changes rather than current climate changes.

Another way the weight of polar ice caps affects the Earth, which may be realized in our lifetime, is by exerting their own gravitational forces that attract water around them. If the ice sheets melt, the gravitational force is lowered, and the water being pulled towards the poles will be released and redistributed in the oceans, causing sea level to rise even more in other parts of the world than it would from melting ice and warmer water alone.

Hope this helps!

How can I get a copy of the report?

Hi Marsha. You can find the report on this site: www.riskybusiness.org